Like most foods in Indian cooking, the ingredients often have a dual purpose – one of flavor and of health. Ghee is one such example used in South Asian cooking that I have grown up loving. A type of clarified butter, ghee originated in Ancient India and continues to be a staple in South Asian and Arabic cuisine. And yet ghee is being marketed in the Western world as a healthy alternative to an already health conscious elite consumer base as a cultural health fad. The commercialization of ghee relies heavily on the exoticism of the Orient, but where does the cultural exchange turn into appropriation. Through articles on ghee sold in the US, I explore the neoliberal motivations behind its incorporation in American culture and how these motivations obscure the authenticity of a traditionally Indian condiment.
There has been a long history of Asian food being replicated in Western society whether in restaurants, agriculture or supermarkets. And considering the history of Asian American migration to the US, it makes sense that the changing market reflects the desires of a diverse American people. However, a new phenomenon based on the mystical and all natural medicinal properties of exotic products has found its way into the market of elite buyers. The demographic profiting and benefiting from this exchange seem to be the very people who are least aware of the culture behind the use of ghee and many other Asian-inspired products.
The rebranding of ghee as a healthy alternative by white women has supplanted the cultural history of ghee and reworked its authenticity to a process rather than a culture. In a google search of “ghee butter,” a hundred different american products emerged, but only a handful could be traced back to Indian/American owned businesses. The Trader Joe’s ghee was once created by a New Jersey Indian American family, but now has been incorporated into the larger grocery chain with little mention of the historical use. In fact, the dialogue used in the market of ghee could easily be compared to the non diary alternative, I can’t believe its not butter. This calls into question the “authenticity” of ghee in the US, particularly seen in the brand Lee’s Ghee. Lee Dares once a model holds little cultural ties to the ghee she is producing in Canada. Rather her ties to the condiment are rooted in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional form of medicine practiced in India and similar to Chinese herbal medicine. As such, Lee bases her advertising on the health benefits of the Indian condiment despite her lack of cultural capital in Indian foods. In the same way, an article of two white women from New York selling the Farm to Gold Ghee draws their inspiration from Ayurvedic. This attention to the traditional and lesser known Ayurvedic medicine elevates ghee above other butters to that of an elite product sought out by the very demographic creating it: white middle class women.
Lori Lopez outlines the criteria for authenticity into 5 categories, “simplicity, personal connection, geographic, history, ethnic connection.” (Lopez, 115) Her categories, though not widely established, can be applied to producers of ghee. In the sale of ghee by white women inspired by Ayurvedic practices, simplicity and a personal connection can be stretched to defend the producers attention to the process of creating ghee. We see this emphasis of process in their discussion of the differences between ghee and other clarified butter (Farm to Gold, New York women). Their detailed description of the health benefits of the ghee also contributes to the fascination behind mystical medical properties of this seemingly unhealthy condiment. This perspective focuses on ghee’s ability to replace butter and is even reworked into an American vegetable chowder recipe. There is little mention of the Indian American ties save for a remark that the recipe “reminds them of home.” The testimony displays Farm to Gold’s authenticity branding as an expert opinion that the ghee is true to Indian-American standards. (Note the article does not say Indians.) According to Lopez’s categories, the emphasis on medical properties may hold these ghees closer to authenticity, but the women’s geographic, ethnic and personal connections to the product do not.
This contradiction existing in the sale of Asian-inspired products in an American market resulted from a capitalist mentality that values monetary over cultural capital. The consumption of ethnic foods for their exoticness and health benefits is a growing trend, but it is largely justified by neoliberal ideas of free choice and globalization (Lecture). As such, ghee is now widely available at relatively affordable prices in most American groceries, including Walmart! Forbes magazine boasts the lucrative ghee business set up by 4th and Heart run by two white women who were also inspired by Ayurvedic practices asks “Why bring ghee back?” An ignorant slip of intentions can create a larger impact in such a statement. Ghee has been used in South Asian cooking for hundreds of years and the growing market in the US undermines this fact. Unlike the history and production evident from the family business, Indian Life, the sale of ghee by the women in these articles only white washes the cultural pervasiveness of a staple condiment.
Ghee is a quickly growing in popularity as a healthy butter alternative. As with many Asian American food phenomenons, there is a growing concern for the cheap production of “exotic” foods at the expensive losing cultural history. In the case of ghee, the medicinal properties serves to raise the use of ghee as a health fad and separate it from its historical use. At the same time, the promotion of an Indian staple serves to disseminate a beloved cultural condiment and bring cultural awareness to South Asian American cuisine. All in all, there needs to be a greater attention to the motivations, be it capitalist or health, behind profiting on Asian foods in the America to better appreciate the culture behind the food.
Lee Dares did get one thing right. Everything is better with ghee!